29 Sep 2014

How did Dennis Kimetto smash the world marathon record?

It is the question everyone wants to know, after he sailed through a marathon in under two hours, three minutes. Channel 4 News speaks to the author of Running with the Kenyans about his secret.

It is not just the fact that Dennis Kimetto shaved 26 seconds off the world marathon record: it is the apparent ease with which he did it, appearing to effortlessly see off his competitors in Berlin and break away from his seven-man group.

What is more extraordinary is that Kimetto only started training seriously in 2010. Before then, he was a fulltime susbsistence farmer in rural Kenya, having managed to slip through the net of the scouts who seek out the country’s talented runners.

He first got people talking when in 2012, at the relatively old age of 28, he came in very close second place in the Berlin Marathon to Geoffrey Mutai, the man who discovered him by chance and asked if he wanted to start training. And after winning Tokyo and Chicago marathons last year, expectations were high.

He’s almost the most untrained, uncomplicated athlete there is, and he’s proved to be the best there is Adharanand Finn

But how did he do it? If only it were thats simple. Adharanand Finn, who lived in a training camp with Kenyan athletes and wrote about the experience in his book, Running with the Kenyans, said that Kimetto is an “unusual case”.

“What I find interesting about him, is that he hadn’t been picked up early – he hadn’t been through the mill of competition,” Mr Finn told Channel 4 News. “And even without having trained professionally until he was 26, he’s this good.”

Kenyans in general don’t do high tech training, he adds, “but his would’ve been even more simple and basic than all the others. He’s almost the most untrained, uncomplicated athlete there is, and he’s proved to be the best there is.”

Low-fi training

The phenomenon of Kenya’s staggering track record on running has intrigued experts and enthusiasts for years. Some have put the elegant, natural-looking style that Kimetto shares down to lifestyle, and the fact that from an early age, children will run to school, often barefoot. In rural areas with limited means of transport, running has become the most efficient way to get around.

Hundreds of Kenyans are now in training camps, where they eat, sleep and run together, and the standard is staggeringly high. Even if you can run a marathon in two hours eight minutes – just over Mo Farah’s two hours, eight minutes and 21 seconds in London earlier this year – you wouldn’t get into some of them, Mr Finn adds.

But there is little of the high tech equipment and analysis that accompanies the running regimes of European and American athletes. And this can result in quite a different mentality.

While some athletes discuss their strategy and analyse their race mile by mile after they’ve finished, Kimetto simply told reporters: “When you in the race, you can look (see) the other and watch… So I think you can see when to make the push.”

“I don’t think he would sit and analyse a race afterwards like a western runner,” said Mr Finn. “The mental approach and focus is amazing in Kenya. It’s a difficult one, because you’re generalising about whole group of runners, but generally, there’s a less analytical approach. They don’t keep training logs, and most runners wouldn’t know how many miles they run every week, whereas English runners would know almost metre to metre.”

With just a few miles to go, Kimetto said he had the finish line in his sights and felt that he could break the world record. And although he made it look easy, he had a few words of comfort for his fellow competitors – that is was a “tough race”.